A friend of mine just shared this article on Facebook on a South African family, The Hewitts, who ventured out of their gated community and into the black slums of South Africa to experience what that life was like.
There are both accolades and criticisms being tossed their way as the family is left feeling quite proud of themselves for having endured the month-long experiment which they say left them somewhat transformed.
There’s no denying that there are lessons learned in the process, however, I would categorize them to be superficial in nature. I will admit that sometimes that is all you need to gain attention, to start a conversation, and raise awareness. And yes, it took a family of white privileged South Africans to garner the attention of the media on the conditions of the many poor who live near them.
But will it be enough to change an entire system? Not likely. Nor are the poor really the story here. Instead, the fascination is not in the fact that people live in these conditions, but rather that a white family was adventurous enough to leave the comforts of their home to slum it for a month near where their maid lives. A stupid fascination by those who can’t even imagine it and a growing trend among curious, privileged travelers.
I lived in a shanty town growing up. It was a short period of my life, but I remember it very, very well. Poverty, such as this, is not something you ever forget and whether you want it to or not, the effects of the same shape your outlook and mindset.
I lived in La Perla, Puerto Rico, considered one of the most violent, dangerous areas of Old San Juan. This is how the outside world defined my home, the place where I freely walked about playing and making friends. Where everyone knew who I was, where a neighbor once saved me from drowning and another helped to bandage my knee after I fell and scraped it. This is where I had no clear definition of who was truly family and who was a family friend simply because we were all so close and well-connected. It was clear to me, even as a child, that it was us against the world and all the awful they thought of us for living there.
My father would eventually come and take me away from that place and I would return almost 20 years later in search of my mother.
As I walked down the hill towards the often blocked off entrance to La Perla, people questioned my sanity.
“Are you crazy?!”
“You’re going to get shot!”
But, I ventured anyway. I walked the narrow streets, much of which remained the same since I last saw them. I felt eyes on me, but no signs of anyone around.
Eventually an older man walked out towards me and stared at my face intensely. I stayed quiet, and simply smiled.
“You are Elba’s daughter,” he stated and immediately proceeded to guide me towards her home.
Police often stared at me as I went in and out of the area, unsure what to make of it. I felt I was returning home.
I haven’t been that poor ever again in my life. I have never again had to sleep on dirt floors, or wait for rain to shower, or use an outhouse as a regular bathroom. I have never again had to fight off tarantulas and roaches from my bed, or fall asleep to the pounding rain on the tin roof since I left there. But those experiences, and the temporary lack of expectation that my life would ever be any different is a part of who I am today, with all my privilege and comfort.
We enter these places and greet these people with a sense of pity and an exaggerated sense of compassion and empathy for what we think they lack. We photograph them while in complete awe of their survival skills and ability to smile despite having what we see as so little and we praise ourselves for our ability to endure it all, if only for a few days, a week, or a month, failing to understand that it is us who lack the level of depth and strength that so many of them have.
There is no denying that many of these towns could benefit from our help and attention, whether it be in schools, clean water supplies, healthcare and more, but it’s arrogant to assume that by simply slumming it for a bit we are suddenly able to understand what that life is like, or even worse, that we were one of them. As a travel blogger I am constantly checking myself, my prejudice, my foreign perspective, and my privilege. I believe in telling a story, understanding that it isn’t always mine and respecting the honor I have been given to pass it on to others for understanding. As travelers, as writers, as photographers, we can al play a significant role in education and awareness. One trip may not always change the political or socio-economic struggles of a country, but it can change someone’s mind, invite discussion, and encourage more than just a vacation.
I am not sure what changed in this family after their little excursion to the slums, I am hopeful something did and I am sure they have a lot to think about, but they also always had their privilege at their disposal and this ability to come and go as they pleased served as a barrier which kept them disconnected from the greatest motivational sources that help these communities strive and function. They never once felt the threat of hopelessness or hunger, and though they might have endured some hardships, they did so by choice. None of the people who lived among them will profit from a book or movie, or whatever may follow from The Hewitt’s experience. Will they raise money to improve the neighborhood they lived in for a month? Will they take part in some form of activism to help improve transportation to and from the jobs these people so heavily rely on? Will they pay their housekeeper more money? It’s hard to say.
Ms. Hewitt had this to say about her experience:
“There is a real sense of community, where people rely on each other and take care of each other. That is something that we don’t have enough of back home.”
And though she may have been able to superficially process this realization, she will never be able to understand or even truly explain why…which in the end is everything.